Commentary

Once known for stoic nature, Richt now showing some flair

Updated: December 31, 2007, 12:48 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- During Mark Richt's first season as Georgia's football coach, after the Bulldogs had lost a couple of games because of questionable late-game coaching decisions, some fans suggested Richt watch the game from a glass enclosure on the sideline so he could remain focused.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesGeorgia coach Mark Richt has plenty to smile about these days.

A few years later, even after Richt had guided the Bulldogs to two SEC championships (after they had gone two decades without winning one), some fans suggested he coach with an IV in his arm because he was so calm and emotionless on the sideline.

No wonder Richt seemed to have multiple personalities this season.

Long known for his straight-laced and stoic personality, Richt finally loosened his collar this season, along with his leash on the Bulldogs. After getting embarrassed 35-14 at Tennessee on Oct. 6, Richt changed the way he coached and the way his team played. As a result, the No. 5 Bulldogs won their last six games to finish 10-2. Georgia plays No. 10 Hawaii in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Louisiana Superdome on New Year's Day.

"It had to do with us getting throttled at Tennessee," Richt said. "I felt like we didn't even fight a great fight. I don't want to take anything away from Tennessee because they did a great job and beat us. Even if we were jacked out of our minds, they might have beaten us. But I knew the emotional part was not there and the energy part was not there. It's an emotional game. I said we were going to play with emotion and heart and energy in the future. If we get beat playing with emotion and heart, I can live with that. I can't live with the other side."

A week after getting blown out by the Volunteers, Richt became enraged when many of his players celebrated wildly after making a last-second field goal to win 20-17 at Vanderbilt. Richt shoved many of his players off the Commodores' logo at midfield after the game ended, cutting short their celebration.

A few days later, Richt told his players he wanted them to do exactly the opposite. He instructed his team to celebrate like madmen on the field after they scored their first touchdown against Florida. If the Bulldogs didn't, Richt told them they'd face severe consequences. The Gators had beaten Georgia 15 times in the previous 17 meetings, and Richt believed his teams had played tight with the long drought hanging over their heads.

So when Georgia tailback Knowshon Moreno dove across the goal line with six minutes left in the first quarter at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Oct. 27, he was quickly mobbed by about 70 of his teammates in one of the most bizarre moments of the college football season. Georgia's not-so-impromptu celebration drew two 15-yard penalties.

Richt not only gambled the Bulldogs would overcome the penalties, but also win the game. If not, he would have looked rather silly.

He's got a pretty good sense of humor, but it's pretty dry. I just felt like he needed to relax and have fun. I'm sure the pressure of the first six years was building up. It was like he just decided to let it all hang out.

--Florida State coach Bobby Bowden on Mark Richt

"I didn't want that," Richt said. "I wanted the group to do it. If a defensive guy makes a sack, you don't want him to go off strutting. You want him to celebrate with his teammates. When I told them what we were going to do, you could just see their minds racing. I think they got the idea, 'He must mean everybody.' I didn't mean everybody."

Georgia beat the defending national champion Gators 42-30 in its most dominating effort against Florida in 10 years. A week later, the Bulldogs beat Troy 44-34 at Sanford Stadium, a score that was closer than expected.

With rival Auburn coming to Athens the following week for another key SEC game, Richt had another motivational ploy up his sleeve. But this plan had been in the works for months. Georgia's players had tried to persuade Richt to let them wear black jerseys for several years. Richt had always resisted because he worried about wearing the jerseys in hot weather and also disturbing Georgia's tradition.

However, when Richt invited Georgia's seniors to his home this past summer, he told them they would wear black jerseys in one game this season. But Richt wanted to keep the plan a secret.

Several days before the Bulldogs played Auburn, Georgia's players requested their fans wear black shirts to create a "blackout" in Sanford Stadium. Fans weren't certain the Bulldogs would wear black jerseys until just before kickoff. Georgia's players wore red jerseys in warm-ups and the team's captains even came onto the field for the coin toss wearing red. But the Bulldogs were wearing black shirts when they ran onto the field. Georgia won the game, 45-20.

The Bulldogs plan to wear the black jerseys against the undefeated Warriors in the Sugar Bowl.

"It was unbelievable," Richt said. "But if you don't win the game, none of that is worth a hoot. Then we're a bunch of idiots."

Richt admits he would have been reluctant to try something new in the past. A longtime offensive coordinator at Florida State, Richt said he became so focused on calling plays that he didn't have time to worry about much else. During his first five seasons as Georgia's coach, he continued to direct the team's offense. Not until the end of last season, when he handed the play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo for the final two games, was Richt ready to give up that part of his job.

"Out of character means different from what you're used to," Richt said. "People are seeing a different side of me than they're used to. It's not a side that I just invented. I've always had this side, it's just that people never saw it because I was focused on my job. I thought the best way for me to do my job was being calm."

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Bulldogs
Paul Abell/US PresswireThe Bulldogs responded when Richt let them wear black jerseys this season.

Georgia strength coach Dave Van Halanger, one of Richt's closest friends, said Richt is having much more fun coaching this season.

After preseason camp, Richt took his team swimming and nailed a 33-foot backflip off a high dive. He took his team bowling and to a paintball outing during the season.

"He's had a lot of fun this year," Van Halanger said. "I think the pressure of not having to think about third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 has helped him relax. That's a lot of pressure. It's allowed him to think and relax. Now he's able to sit back and see a bigger picture. He's always had that side in him, but he just had so many things pulling at him."

Those people close to Richt aren't surprised by his seemingly transformed personality. They say Richt has had a competitive nature all along. Kevin Hynes, Richt's brother-in-law and team chaplain, remembers playing a pickup basketball game against Richt on Thanksgiving Day a few years ago. After Hynes' team beat Richt's team in the first two games, Richt ordered his team to play man-to-man defense in the third game.

"I heard him say, 'I want Chappy,'" Hynes recalled.

When Hynes came down with a rebound on one possession, Richt accidentally poked him in the eye. Head coach and team chaplain went nose-to-nose on the court. The children ran to the house crying. Hynes now refuses to play basketball -- or anything else for that matter -- against his brother-in-law.

"I just decided after that I wouldn't play with him anymore," Hynes said. "I want to win. I'm a former Marine and I hate to lose. But I'm not crazy like him. I don't like to bowl with him. I don't like to play cards with him."

During another family outing, Richt and his two sisters, each of whom played volleyball in college, were playing beach volleyball against a group of teenagers. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Brad Johnson, who is married to Richt's sister Nicole, also was on their team. When Richt's team lost, he screamed at his sisters. Nicole Johnson left the beach crying.

"He was like, 'You guys played college volleyball?'" recalled Michelle Hynes, the coach's sister. "We'd miss a serve and he'd start ragging us. He's really competitive. We know the real Mark. We know his demeanor. He's calm, but he's competitive."

Kevin Hynes said even though Richt didn't always show his competitive fire, he found ways to motivate his teams. Before the infamous family basketball game, Richt had wrestled his oldest son, Jon, and won. Jon Richt wanted another chance to beat his father. "Not this year," Richt told him.

Two days later, as the Bulldogs sat in their locker room at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium before playing the Yellow Jackets, Richt told his players about the wrestling match and basketball game.

"The reason I didn't want my brother-in-law to win is because I didn't want to hear about it for the next 12 months," Richt told his players. "The reason I didn't want my son to win is because I didn't want to hear about it for a year. Maybe next year, but not today. Georgia Tech might get us next year, but they're not going to get us today."

Richt has beaten the Yellow Jackets in each of his seven seasons at Georgia.

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who hired Richt as his quarterbacks coach in 1990 and later promoted him to offensive coordinator, was waiting for Richt's competitive fire to rear its head. Bowden once joked that when Richt began dating his wife, Katharyn, she had to smack him. It wasn't because Richt was getting fresh, Bowden said, it was because he'd fallen asleep.

Even Bowden was surprised by some of Richt's stunts this season.

"I couldn't believe it," Bowden said. "But I was glad to see it. He's got a pretty good sense of humor, but it's pretty dry. I just felt like he needed to relax and have fun. I'm sure the pressure of the first six years was building up. It was like he just decided to let it all hang out."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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